CHARLOTTE—He had already scored Duke's first points of the game with a layup on Duke's previous possession, but Zion Williamson really announced his arrival to his lone March of college basketball two minutes and five seconds into Thursday's ACC quarterfinal.
Williamson jumped in front of a pass from Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim, snatching the ball and taking off down the floor, as the crowd at the Spectrum Center gasped in anticipation of his first dunk in more than three weeks.
He threw it down with his right hand, wiping away any lingering concerns about rust or the strength of his right knee. And then he kept going.
The freshman who won ACC Player of the Year despite playing just two-thirds of the conference season before spraining his knee against North Carolina delivered a more awe-inducing performance than anything he produced during a spectacular regular season, making all 13 shots he took from the field while adding 14 rebounds and five steals.
"It’s like a video game when you’re in 2K—I know some people can relate to this—you’re in 2K, you have a created player and you’re able to go out in one of those games and dunk everything, finish everything," classmate Tre Jones said. "I knew as soon as he got back out there with us in practice that he was back to himself."
When Williamson threw down another fast-break dunk off a steal with 3:40 left in the first half, he was outscoring Syracuse's entire team 19-15 and Duke had a 17-point lead. After the Blue Devils' transition offense struggled without him in recent weeks, it was back in full force during that 23-6 first-half run, including one magnificent play when Jones leapt for a steal and threw a crisp bounce pass to R.J. Barrett in midair before Williamson finished the play with a dunk.
The Spartanburg, S.C., native—playing just 75 miles from home—also affected the game in more subtle ways, drawing early fouls on Orange big men Paschal Chukwu and Marek Dolezaj to send them to the bench and neutralize Syracuse's size advantage while Duke center Marques Bolden was sidelined with a knee injury.
"I just wanted to play defense, get out in passing lanes and just apply pressure," Williamson said. "I wanted to be out there every game. I see my brothers out there battling and I just wanted to go to war with them."
Williamson had success against Syracuse in the regular season, too, with a career-high 35 points in an overtime loss at home. The Blue Devils got their revenge on the Orange at the Carrier Dome while Williamson was hurt, but they would've had a hard time winning the rubber match without him. The Orange shut down Cam Reddish and Jones and contained first-team All-ACC forward R.J. Barrett in the first half.
But once again, they just didn't have an answer for Williamson.
"I've been in this game over 50 years, and I've seen a lot of great players—I'm not saying he's better than those guys, but he's a different player," Hall of Fame Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He can do things that nobody has done in this game. I mean, Charles [Barkley] was close, but this guy's bigger, stronger. He's a crazy different type of player."
Since Williamson made the last six shots he attempted against N.C. State, he has now made 19 straight shots from the field, one shy of the ACC record held by former Duke forward Alaa Abdelnaby. Williamson's streak matches teammate Javin DeLaurier's streak from earlier this season—he needed eight games to make 19 in a row without getting hurt—and passed Ryan Kelly's streak of 18 consecutive made shots in 2011.
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Williamson's near-perfect game also brought to mind another comparison with Kelly after the former forward's legendary 36-point game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against Miami in 2013 in his return from a 13-game absence due to a broken foot. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski chuckled when he was asked about the parallels between the two performances—one coming from a 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior and the other coming from a 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman.
"The difference in athletic ability maybe caused me not to think of that," Krzyzewski said. "Nothing against Ryan, but his [shots] were threes."
Kelly only scored in double figures one time after that game his senior year, but the Blue Devils will be looking for a lot more left in the tank in their last few weeks with a once-in-a-generation talent. Another elite outing would certainly help Duke beat North Carolina for the first time this season in Friday's semifinals, and he will get his only shot at leaving a mark on the NCAA tournament beginning next week.
"You get a chance to see them as they're developing into the players that they're going to be. For me, I love the fact of being part of that process for a short period of time, and that's why I never try to make them like somebody else," Krzyzewski said. "They didn't come to Duke to be a four- or a three-[year player] or like Jayson Tatum or Brandon Ingram. They came to see who they were going to become, and let's see what happens."